Population, Health, and Environment in Agriculture Development

Posted on July 26, 2010


Originally published on The New Security Beat:

Driving from Kigali into rural Rwanda, the hills that flank either side of the paved road are covered with bananas, maize, coffee, and beans under cultivation. Most Rwandans are farmers, using any bit of available land to feed their families and generate income. In this country—the most densely populated in Africa—little arable land is left untended.

My organization, One Acre Fund, offers loans and education to smallholder farmers in Kenya and Rwanda. We work with 18,000 farmers in three districts in the southwestern and western part of Rwanda, where we are know as Tubura, which means “multiply” in Kinyarwanda.

Though One Acre Fund is not a traditional population, health, and environment (PHE) project, agricultural development work inherently is PHE work, particularly in Rwanda, which faces significant population and environment challenges.

Our farmers have small plots of land because Rwanda’s population density is so high—375 people per square kilometer, higher than Japan—leaving only .13 hectares of arable land per person. They struggle to grow enough food because it’s difficult to support a big family on a small piece of land, especially without access to high-quality seed and fertilizer.

When farmers don’t grow enough to ensure basic food security for their families, their children are malnourished, which makes them more susceptible to illness.

Finally, agriculture both depends on and affects the environment. Farmers need favorable growing conditions—good soil and adequate rainfall—for a good harvest. Sustainable agriculture practices, such as composting and preventing soil erosion, ensure the environment remains healthy to support future farming.One Acre Fund is acutely aware of the challenges that our farmers face due to high population density, food insecurity, and environmental degradation. We offer a service model that addresses all the needs of a smallholder farmer: financing, farm inputs, education, and market access.

When a farmer enrolls with One Acre Fund in Rwanda, she joins as part of a group of 6-15 farmers. She receives an in-kind loan of seed and fertilizer, which is guaranteed by her group members. One Acre Fund delivers this seed and fertilizer to a market point within two kilometers of where she lives. A field officer provides in-field training on composting, techniques to prevent soil erosion, land preparation, planting, fertilizer application, and weeding.

Over the course of the season, the field officer monitors the farmer’s fields. At the end of the season, he trains her on how to harvest and store her crop. One Acre Fund also offers a harvest buyback program that farmers can choose to participate in.

On average, One Acre Fund farmers double their farm income per acre in one growing season. Ninety-eight percent of our farmers repay their loans, which are due several weeks after harvest.

With their increased harvests, One Acre Fund farmers are able to feed their children, which reduces malnutrition. Anecdotally, we also know that One Acre Fund children experience less illness; this year, we are working to incorporate health indicators into our monitoring and evaluation work.

At a harvest buyback last month, I met many farmers who had benefited from One Acre Fund’s services. One woman, Tamar, had sold 400 kilograms (880 pounds) of beans at the previous season’s buyback, which earned her roughly 132,000 Rwandan francs ($235 USD). She told me that she was using the money to build a bigger home for the six of her ten children who lived at home.

However, Tamar really wanted to buy a cow, but she knew that she would not earn enough money this year to afford one. With so many children, she struggled to earn enough money to invest in something that might generate additional income for her and her family.

Another woman, Medeatrice, had also made $235 USD from the sale of her beans. With that income, she had opened a small shop with her husband in a nearby market. Unusually for Rwanda, where the average woman has 5.5 children, Medeatrice only had one, a three-year old boy named Prince. I asked her if she planned to have more children.“I only want one more child,” she told me. “If I only have two children, it is easy to educate and to take care of them.”

The Rwandan government has invested in educating its population on family planning, but it will take time for birth rates to drop. For now, families with five, six, or nine children are not uncommon.

However, research shows that when women have increased access to economic opportunities, birth rates drop. One Acre Fund is focused on helping Rwanda’s families increase their harvests so that they not only have enough to eat, but they can start investing in their futures.

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